WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Thursday said the United States welcomed China's commitment to arms control negotiations and that "prudent next steps" should include face-to-face meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus issued the statement a day after a top Chinese diplomat said China would "be happy to" hold arms control talks with the United States and Russia, but only if Washington was willing to cut its nuclear arsenal to China's level, which is about 20 times smaller.
“But actually, we know that’s not going to happen," added Fu Cong, the head of the arms control department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Still, Fu's comments appeared to represent a slight shift after months of Beijing rejecting outright a proposal by U.S. President Donald Trump that it join Washington and Moscow in negotiating a trilateral arms control treaty.
"The United States welcomes China’s commitment to engage in arms control negotiations," Ortagus said. "As such, prudent next steps will need to include face-to-face meetings between the United States and China."
She said Marshall Billingslea, Trump's special envoy for arms control, would invite China to join "good faith negotiations" in Vienna, Austria.
Billingslea held talks there with a senior Russian official last month on the proposed trilateral treaty. He earned a rebuke from Beijing - which declined to attend - for tweeting a picture of empty seats at a table in front of Chinese flags.
The United States says as a growing nuclear weapons power, China should join it and Russia in a new treaty. But China's estimated 300 warheads are dwarfed by the arsenals of Russia and the United States.
"The United States also recommends that China meet with Russia at an early date to consider next steps for trilateral arms control negotiations," Ortagus said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)